Advent in Ein Karem, where the memory of John the Baptist is always alive

Advent in Ein Karem, where the memory of John the Baptist is always alive

Interview with  fr. Dobromir, guardian of the Shrine of the Nativity of St John in the Mountain

In Ein Karem, a small village 8 kilometres from Jerusalem, the presence of the Custody of the Holy Land is divided into 3 shrines where for centuries the memory of one of the key figures of the Advent has been preserved: John the Baptist.

At the schrine of the Visitation the evangelical episode of the visit by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, as told by Luke in his gospel, is remembered. There is also the memory, in the crypt, of the stone behind which John the Baptist is said to have hidden with his mother to escape from the massacre ordered by Herod the Great. Not far away, the shrine of St. John in the Desert stands on the spot where he spent his childhood and lived in the years preparing for public ministry. Both are communities of the Mother House, which is the shrine of the Nativity of St John in the Mountain, where the Precursor was born.

A key figure of Advent

“All these sacred sites, in Ein Karem, are linked to John the Baptist,” said fr. Dobromir Jasztal, Guardian of the Shrine of the Nativity. His presence has permeated these places and ourselves, friars, the custodians today of his message and of the sites connected with him. It is our task to perpetuate the spirituality of the place, which is what all those who come all the way here want to “experience.”

The figure of John is certainly of enormous importance for the Christian faith and spirituality. He recalls conversion: he points out to us the road that we have to take to welcome the Lord. Jesus was born in Bethlehem but first of all he has to be born and find a place in our hearts. This is the modernity and the centrality of John’s message: nobody can welcome the Lord is they are not committed to ‘flattening out’ and removing everything that hinders this welcome”.

Does John the Baptist represent a bridge of dialogue with the Jews?

“John is indicated as the last prophet, indeed he is “more than a prophet” (Matt 11.9): he is like a connection between the Old and the New Testament. With him, we enter the phase of accomplishment because the word of God will no longer be only “announced” to the people,  but it is made flesh and with Jesus lives in the midst of his people. It is difficult to understand the category of the accomplishment without taking the Old Testament into account.

His figure is certainly of help in relations with the Jewish world. Here in Ein Karem, in this very period, when there are the festivities of Hanukkah and Christmas, which have in common the theme of light, there is a symposium between Jews and Christians: and the interest, the drive for this dialogue starts precisely from John, who belongs to the Jewish world.

The current circumstances, unfortunately, force us to be careful and avoid gatherings. This is why the symposium is not being held this year: we also have to take into consideration that the festivity of Hanukkah is a feast of joy, and today there are few Jews are in the mood for this joy, even festive. It is of course different for us Christians: we have not cancelled or diminished the celebration of Christmas which, on the contrary, in a situation like this, can really help  give back trust and hope.”

What it is like today without pilgrims?

“Even if there are no pilgrims as before 7 October, this does not mean that the life in our communities has stopped: we friars continue every day the service in the shrines – for local groups, Christians, Jews but also Muslims sometimes- and the maintenance work. The presence of Casa Nova, also means that a fair number of Christians come for short retreats and spiritual exercises. 

There are 21 friars in the community of St John in the Mountain, 13 of whom are students of philosophy and theology with academic commitments at the Studium Theologicum. Then, one of the friars is the master of formation and 4 others are also lecturers at the Studium. This is one of the houses of formation and formation is also a great responsibility in accompanying these young men on their path, especially in the international context, which is proper to the Custody.

Are you preparing to celebrate Christmas together with the other communities?

We have always shared the main occasions,  the chapter, the monthly retreats and festive celebrations with the other communities of the Visitation and St John in the Desert: so the celebration on Christmas night in the Crusader Chapel which is next to the main church, still being renovated. There is only one Christian family here in the village, but our community is also enriched by all the religious groups and families in the area.

This year, in particular, we have dedicated special care to preparing the Nativity scene: on the 800th anniversary of the Nativity scene of Greccio 1223/2023, from the day of the Immaculate Conception to the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, by remaining in prayer in front of the Nativity scenes in Franciscan churches – according to what the Apostolic Penitentiary established – the faithful can receive Plenary Indulgence. This is another spiritual service for all those who pass through here.

Silvia Giuliano